Man works to save Louisiana river chapel sprung from a vision of God

Published 3:44 pm Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Among the gum and cypress trees of a southeastern Louisiana swamp, where Spanish moss hangs from the branches and bald eagles and osprey fly overhead, sits a little chapel called Our Lady of Blind River — the legacy of one woman’s faith.

The one-room chapel was built decades ago after Martha Deroche said she had a vision of Jesus kneeling by a rock, and over the years it became a spiritual haven for passing boaters, kayakers, hunters and fishermen who ply the placid waters of the river. Time and the elements have damaged the structure and Martha and her husband have passed away, but a new generation of the family is determined to preserve it for future travelers to once again enjoy a tranquil place for prayer.

“Only way you can get here is by boat,” said Martha’s daughter Pat Hymel, sitting in one of the chapel’s pews. “I think that’s why it was so special to a lot of people … being out in nature, way out in an area of such beauty.”

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In the late ’70s, when Martha and her husband, Bobby, moved out to their hunting camp along Blind River — named for the many turns that make it impossible to see around the next corner — Martha was worried about how she’d be able to regularly attend church.

But then came a vision of Jesus kneeling by a rock. That vision, Martha told Bobby, was Jesus saying that she needed to build a church there. So on Easter Sunday of 1983, Martha and Bobby — who luckily was a carpenter — got to work.

It became a community project, Pat said on a recent morning as she leafed through a scrapbook of photographs showing the neighbors and friends who helped turn Martha’s vision into reality.

“They got together and they came and helped. And that was a beauty in itself,” said Pat.

They laid down floor joists and raised a roof and a steeple. They carved pews from cypress trees and hand-chiseled the shingles from cypress as well. In the center of the chapel is a statue of the Virgin Mary who is standing inside a hollowed out cypress tree that was pulled from the swamp. The room is decorated with paintings of Jesus or other religious scenes, rosaries and crosses.

When the chapel was finished in August 1983, a priest came to dedicate it in a ceremony attended by neighbors and friends in their boats.

Since then it has hosted weddings, visitors from as far away as Israel and England and one archbishop. Pat said her mother was generally there to greet them, hand out finger rosaries or candles, and ask them if they wanted her to pray for them or if they wanted to write out a special prayer.

Many visitors who weren’t Catholic would ask Martha if they could go inside the chapel. Pat said her mother assured them they could.

“She said this place is for everyone,” Pat said. “That meant a lot to her to have people come in here, and whether they stayed a minute or an hour, it didn’t matter.”

Bobby Deroche died in 2012 and Martha the next year. Now Pat’s son Lance Weber, who has a small house next door, is taking care of the chapel. The years and south Louisiana weather have not been kind. The chapel has flooded repeatedly and needs extensive repair work. For the past two years or so, Lance has kept the chapel closed to most visitors out of safety concerns.

Last summer he built a new boat dock with donated composite boards, and he’s mounted support posts that will help hold the chapel up when he raises it from future floods. Then he’ll start repairing the flooring and tackling other projects. All of the tools required — everything from heavy beams to riprap, screws and bags of concrete — must be hauled in on Lance’s 15-foot (4.6-meter) flat boat.

He plans to build a dock specifically for kayakers on the side of the chapel. And he’d like to repeat something his grandparents did when the chapel was first built. Those who helped with its construction wrote special prayers on pieces of paper that Martha and Bobby gathered and stored in the steeple.

Lance plans to take those out, rewrap them in a waterproof container and then ask everyone who helps him with repairs to write their own prayers. He’ll put them all back together in the steeple.

Lance grew up visiting his grandparents on the river, and the chapel was a constant of his childhood. His grandmother rang the church bell on Sunday mornings to call him in from wherever he was fishing so they could watch church services on TV.

Over the decades he’s noticed some changes in the surrounding swamp — high water and waves from boat traffic have eroded the tree line and widened the river channel, but otherwise, everything is just about the same. And he wants to keep it that way.

“Now that I’m older, I’m trying to preserve it for my kids and their kids and grandkids and everything else,” he said.